Friday, August 24, 2007

Who'd want to be a writer?

Have you seen this? Reportedly 10% of Britons dream about being a writer, according to a new YouGov survey. That makes writing the most longed-for job in the UK, but what do you think is the second most popular?

It's "Sports Personality".

Now, I'm wary of reading too much into this because I don't know how the YouGov poll was done: just to make the data manageable, I would expect there was a specified list to choose from rather than it just being open season. (An example aside. Olive magazine ran a poll recently covering twenty-odd topics such as favourite chef, best cookery book, and so on. But because the answers were all free text, I got hired for an entire day to sort out the results. Best chef, for instance, would have several thousand answers and no way to sort out G Ramsay from Gordon from Sweary Bloke from Gardin Romsory other than by eye. I got statistically significant and provable results from about 19 of the 20 questions; one of them was impossible because of how they'd done it like this.)

So maybe it was YouGov that set up tick boxes for Writer, Sports Personality and so on. I hope so. I don't like it if it's true, but the alternative bothers me because of that word personality. Either YouGov or its respondents chose sports personality over, for instance, sportsman or woman. The personality aspect appealed more than the prospect of getting your teeth punched out in rugby. It's almost hard to believe.

That word colours what I think of all the results, which by the way continued with pilot, astronaut, and event organiser in that order.

You're ahead of me, aren't you? This isn't about work, it's about glamour. Writing is a glamorous job and The Guardian's coverage of this poll suggests that JK Rowling's success has a lot to do with that image, especially with women. I understand that yet it almost feels like it's reducing her effort somehow. Her success, if you think of the glamorous side, is being interviewed everywhere, praised through the roof and earning a lot of money. But when I think of her, I think of her work: those years of writing, that sheer bloody hard slog and the way to stay creative and imaginative and fun when dealing with that weight of storytelling. I admire her, I have no idea what she's earned from Harry Potter but I hope it's a lot and I am sure she really did earn it.

It's not as if I'd turn down an interview, it's not as if money wouldn't ease a few problems, but that's not what I think of when I think about writing as a job. And I never think of being a sports personality because that would surely involve some sports. Though I did discover an unexpected knack for pool this week.

Perhaps I'm naive, or perhaps this is all just another way of commenting on the notion that people seem to want fame and don't have any interest in what form it takes. I got really narked the other week, hearing Jade Goody talk about her career: how can she apply that word? What work has she done?

But on occasion I have been told by people that they would love my job. Given that I wouldn't change what I do for the world, I am still invariably surprised that they say this. Perhaps that's all I'm thinking tonight over this poll, why would you want to be a writer?

Here's what I think writing is. Imagine when you were in the kitchen this morning, you heard a joke on the radio so good that it made you choke. And all you could think of was that you've got to tell it to the friends you're meeting tonight in the pub.

And they don't get it. "Right, good one. Great. Really. So who do you think will win Big Brother?"

You've had this, you can feel what it's like. But now imagine the same thing with one difference: you didn't hear the joke on the radio, you made it up. And they didn't like it.

And now one last change. You still made up the joke, you still went to tell these people but they're not friends, they're editors. And this wasn't a spontaneous gag you thought up, it was your job to find something funny and the fact that they don't laugh directly affects whether you can pay the mortgage.

That's what I think writing's like.

Mind you, you do get to work at home a lot.


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